“‘If the late Edgar Poe had sat down to invent a tale of mystery, he could not have imagined anything more strange and perplexing…'” – The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

July 11, 2008 at 2:16 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The subtitle of this book, “A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective,” conveys only the barest essence of this multifaceted inquiry into an unspeakable crime that happened in the unlikeliest of places. In 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent was murdered in his family’s home in Road, a small village in Wiltshire in the south west of England.

Writers, journalists, and members of the public quickly became obsessed wth the Road Hill House murder, as it came to be known. As a result of this ‘detective-fever’ (so christened by Wilkie Collins ), letters poured in to the police and the newspapers suggesting solutions to the riddle of who killed little Saville. The Kent household was a large one, consisting of Samuel Kent’s numerous children by two wives, the first deceased, the second living with him at Road Hill House at the time of the murder. In other words, there was no shortage of suspects.

The local constabulary, overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of the situation, appealed to Scotland Yard for help. The Yard responded by dispatching to Wiltshire one of their best: Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher. “Jack” Whicher had already perfected some thief-taking methods that were advancing police practice in London. Now it was time for him to head out to the provinces and see what he could accomplish. He dove with gusto into the mare’s nest that was the Road Hill House case. But his methods, in particular his detaining of a suspect based on what appeared to be insufficient evidence, caused the general public to take aganist him. Eventually, he was removed from the case altogether, despite the conviction of several observers, both inside and outside of law enforcement, that he was on the right track.

Among the claims made for the Road Hill House affair is that it is in effect the progenitor of a perennially favored subgenre of British crime fiction:

“This was the original country-house murder mystery, a case in which the investigator had to find not a person, but a person’s hidden self. It was pure whodunnit, a contest of intelligence and nerve between the detective and the killer.

Now, I really love this subgenre! One of my  favorite a story collections is called English Country House Murders; it contains such gems as “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Conan Doyle, “The Doom of the Darnaways” by G.K. Chesterton (a Father Brown story), and a compelling novella by Wilkie Collins called “A Marriage Tragedy.” In stories like these, the reader usually encounters world-weary aristocrats (as well as wannabe aristocrats) and witty repartee, all in the spirit of lighthearted fun (or as lighthearted as you can get when discussing murder). Even the villains are, at times, quite charming!

But there is, alas, nothing whatsoever of charm about the Kent family of Road Hil House. There seems to have been something distinctly warped about the personalities inhabiting – I almost want to say, “confined to” – that ill-fated dwelling place. As I was casting about for an apt descriptor, the word “creepy” came to my mind – and stayed there…

Jack Whicher, on the other hand, is clearly the model for a number of fictional sleuths, among the first of which are Inspector Bucket in Bleak House and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone.


Even more contemporaneous with the Road Hill House were the so-called novels of sensation, the most notable of which was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries,the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or  the busy London lodgings.'”  Summerscale elaborates:  “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”  The worry at the time was that readers were experienciing the same scary subcutaneous reactions!

Kate Summerscale takes the necessary time to inform readers of the particulars concerning the lives of the various players in this drama. She provides fascinating insights into life in mid-Victorian Britain, including, inevitably, its seamier side. Her narrative is liberally interspersed with observations by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and (the aforementioned) Henry James. Numerous quotes from contemporary news sources – like the one from the Times that I used in the title of this post – provide further insight into the mindset of both the actors and the observers in this extraordinary drama. For me, this somewhat hindered the narrative’s momentum. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is not what I’d call a page turner, but it is filled with such riches that I didn’t mind. And the pace does pick up in the latter half of the book.

There was a preponderance of female suspects in the Road Hill case. While some would naturally shrink from the idea of a woman or girl committing such a heinous crime, a reporter for The Times did not, offering instead this explanation:

“From twelve to fourteen to eighteen or twenty is that period of life in which the tide of natural affection runs the lowest, leaving the body and the intellect unfettered and unweakened in the work of development, and leaving the heart itself open for the strong passions and overwhelming preferences which will now seize it…sad to say, it is the softer sex especially which is said to go through a period of almost utter heartlessness.

To this, Kate Summerscale appends the following: “Girls were ‘harder and more selfish’ than boys; in preparation for the sexual passion to come, their hearts were emptied of all tenderness.” I have to admit that after that last part, I put the book down and just stared for a while into the middle distance. I was sure that in my albeit brief study of developmental psychology, I had never encountered such a blunt and pitiless assessment of teen-age girls! I had to stop and consider it for some minutes. I’m still considering, and you may, too, when you learn the outcome of this investigation.

With regard to that outcome: five years after the murder, there occurred a dramatic revelation. The mystery appeared to be solved. But was it really? Key questions remained unanswered. Will the whole truth ever be revealed? In the novel No Name, Wilkie Collins opines:

“‘Nothing in the world is hidden for ever…Hate breaks its prison-secrecy in the thoughts, through the doorway of the eyes…Look where we will, the inevitable law of revelation is one of the laws of nature: the lasting preservation of a secret is a miracle which the world has never yet seen’

But in his story “The Man of the Crowd,” Edgar Allan Poe warns:

“‘There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told…mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave.’

In the Afterword to her book, Kate Summerscale describes her feelings upon reading about the wounds inflicted on Saville Kent. (The description – and believe me, it is all the more heartrending for being almost poetically expressed –  comes from a work by Joseph Stapleton published 1861. His subject was the Road Hill House murder; the book’s title was The Great Crime of 1860.)

“The image makes Saville suddenly present: he wakes to see his killer and to see his death descend on him. When I read Stapleton’s words I was reminded, with a jolt, that the boy lived. In unravelling the story of his murder, I had forgotten him.

This, then, is a book about crime, conscience, and culpability. It is about literature, and specifically about the beginnings of the detective novel. It is about a society undergoing seismic changes and unsure how to react  to them. Above all, it is about the pathos of a young life cruelly and arbitrarily cut short. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale is meticulously researched and beautifully written; I recommend it with all my heart!

[Kate Summerscale]


  1. Pauline Cohen said,


    Thanks for the recommendation. I have requested The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher from my local library. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I’ve read it.

    Keep those suggestions coming!


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